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Bart D. Ehrman


The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth

Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence.
I've previously reviewed several books which claim that Jesus did not exist but was a mythical figure (Deconstructing Jesus and The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man, by Robert M. Price; The Jesus Puzzle, by Earl Doherty; The Jesus Mysteries, by Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy).

Only one of these authors (Price) is a professional scholar in New Testament studies. The great majority of scholars don't take the 'mythicist' position seriously or discuss it in any detail. Ehrman thinks that this is a mistake, because the mythicists' claims attract attention from non-specialist readers. In this book, therefore, he considers the arguments in some detail. At least some of the mythicists do deserve to be taken seriously, he believes, although the more sensationalist representatives of the genre do not; the afore-mentioned Freke and Gandy are in that category.

The book has three parts. The first reviews the evidence we have for the existence of Jesus. The second considers the mythicists' arguments, while the third offers a description of what we can know about Jesus based on the available historical records.

Evidence for the existence of Jesus comes from both non-Christian and Christian sources. He is mentioned by Josephus and some Latin authors such as Suetonius and Tacitus. There are also some Jewish references. Most of our knowledge, however, is Christian in origin: mainly the four gospels of the New Testament but also Paul's writings. Paul is the nearest in time to Jesus, and probably wrote only a few years after Jesus's death. Mythicists make a great deal of the fact that Paul says relatively little about the historical Jesus, but Ehrman discusses these arguments in detail and finds that there is no good reason to think that Paul did not have a historical figure in mind.

The mythicists' dismissal of the New Testament sources as unreliable historical documents is discussed in Part 2. Ehrman has himself written extensively on this subject so he is well equipped to discuss how far we can trust the accounts of Jesus given in these books. He finds that the synoptics, especially Mark, do provide a lot of factual detail, although that does not mean that they are history in the accepted sense, and they are not eye-witness accounts. While accepting some of the mythicists' criticisms of these documents, Ehrman thinks they go too far. He makes the telling point that whenever some statement in the texts seems inconveniently to indicate the existence of a historical Jesus, this is dismissed as a later interpolation, but that, of course, is a very tendentious way of arguing.

A recurring feature of the mythicist position is the claim that the ancient world was full of stories about dying and resurrecting gods, and these are held to have given rise to the myth of Jesus as a god of this kind. One obvious problem with this idea is that the early Christians were Jews; it's highly unlikely that they would have adopted pagan beliefs of that kind even if they knew of them. Moreover, the earliest Christians didn't regard Jesus as God; that view arose later.

In any case, the idea that antiquity was full of such legends is no longer widely believed. It originated with Sir James Frazer's monumental study The Golden Bough, but although his work was taken seriously by many scholars for a long time, since the end of the twentieth century his ideas have been largely abandoned. And even the few scholars who continue to accept that there is evidence for dying and rising gods in antiquity don't think that this has any relevance to the traditions about Jesus.

Part 3 is largely a summary of what Ehrman has written elsewhere about Jesus, particularly in Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium. He concludes by saying that there can be no serious doubt that Jesus was a historical figure but he had little in common with the Jesus of (American) Christianity today. "Jesus was a first-century Jew, and when we try to make him into a twenty-first century American we distort everything he was and everything he stood for."

I found this a very useful book. I read Price and Doherty with interest but, as a non-specialist reader, I found it difficult to assess how reliable their arguments were. They seemed to make some telling points but I had difficulty in believing that Jesus could be purely fictional. I now feel much more able to reach a judgement.

17 July 2014

%T Did Jesus Exist?
%S The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth
%Bart D. Ehrman
%I HarperOne
%C New York
%D 2013
%G ISBN 9780062206442
%P 361pp
%K religion
%O paperback

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